Once Upon a Time in America: De Niro’s Herringbone for a Heist
Robert De Niro as David “Noodles” Aaronson, mob bootlegger and ex-convict
Detroit, Fall 1932
Film: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Costume Designer: Gabriella Pescucci
After premiering at Cannes in May and undergoing a truncated release stateside that summer, Sergio Leone’s controversial mob saga Once Upon a Time in America was finally released in the Italian-born director’s home country on this day in 1984. Leone’s final film, and the first he had directed in 13 years, Once Upon a Time in America marked the conclusion to his unofficial “Once Upon a Time…” trilogy.
Loosely adapted from Harry Grey’s 1952 novel The Hoods, Once Upon a Time in America centers around a New York street gang that grows from troubled adolescence into violent adulthood during the Prohibition era in the United States. The gang’s leadership shifts from the hotheaded but relatively simple “Noodles” Aaronson to the more cunning Max Bercovicz, who takes command after a teenage Noodles is arrested following the murder of a rival gangster.
After nearly a dozen years in the can, the adult Noodles (Robert De Niro) is released and instantly greeted by Max (James Woods), now a debonair bootlegger with ambitions beyond Noodles’ greatest ambitions. Together with old pals Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden) and “Cockeye” Stein (William Forsythe), Max recruits Noodles into a scheme concocted by Detroit mobsters Joe (Burt Young) and Frankie (Joe Pesci) to rob a diamond shipment from an insurance dealer.
Our quartet escapes with the diamonds, a successful heist from a financial perspective but not without incident. While the rest of the men busy themselves with the actual robbery, Noodles disgustingly rapes Carol (Tuesday Weld), the office secretary who had helped organize the robbery, portending a horrific assault scene that would follow later. When the gang meets with Joe, Max turns the tables and oversees the massacre of Joe’s gangsters, which Noodles brings to a conclusion when he pulls his own .38 snub to hunt down the last of Joe’s men. Returning to the car, Noodles is dismayed, not only that he wasn’t apprised of the plan to double-cross Joe but also to learn that Max carried out the hit ostensibly on Frankie’s orders, despite their childhood goal of working only for themselves.
Leone presents us with a curious central character in “Noodles” Aaronson, seemingly a born criminal who’s neither smart nor virtuous. Instead, he’s a simple hood guided only by his impulses, with his maturity undoubtedly stagnated by more than a decade in prison. A more traditional movie may have selected the craftier Max as our protagonist or at least imbued Noodles with more sympathetic qualities, but Once Upon a Time in America is hardly traditional in any sense of the word.
What’d He Wear?
I had always been intrigued by the curiously contemporary outfit that Noodles wears for the diamond heist, blending his ’30s-style heavy double-breasted suit and fedora with the ’80s-era sensibilities of dressing down a suit with a polo shirt. Of course, that’s not to say no one dressed like this during the Prohibition era, and it’s certainly suitable for the task at hand.
Compared to his colleagues in their pinned collars and ties, Noodles is the obvious renegade in his ultra-casual (for the time) knitted long-sleeved polo-style shirt, the top of the three-button placket worn undone. The shirt’s dark navy color coordinates with his darker hat to evoke the classic Western “good guys wear white, bad guys wear black” trope to signify Noodles’ eventual role in the rest of the group’s downfall.
The suit is a black-and-white herringbone-woven wool, with a unique burgundy double stripe against each right-down-to-left (or “right-handed”) twill section, creating a unique complexity that also matches it as the screen-worn suit that had been displayed—albeit with a dressier striped shirt and tie—at a Sergio Leone prop and costume exhibition in 2006, as photographed by a contributor on The RPF.
Noodles’ double-breasted jacket has the usual peak lapels and a full 6×2-button configuration, though he wears the jacket open throughout the sequence. The wide shoulders are roped at the heads of each sleeve, which are finished with three buttons on the cuff. The ventless jacket also has a welted breast pocket and jetted hip pockets.
Noodles tucks the shirt into his double forward-pleated trousers, which have an era-correct long rise to De Niro’s natural waist. Despite the presence of belt loops, he holds them up with black suspenders (braces) that have silver adjusters shining from the chest and black leather “rabbit-ear” ends which presumably connect to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband.
The trousers are finished with turn-ups (cuffs), which break over his black leather cap-toe oxfords, worn with black socks.
Noodles joins his fellow thieves by donning a period-correct fedora for the raid, molded from a dark charcoal-gray felt that visually codes him as the prototypical “black hat villain” as he commits one of his most villainous acts of the saga. The hat has a wide black grosgrain band and a self-edged snap brim.
Also consistent with the rest of the gang (and CDC guidelines), Noodles covers his nose and mouth with his handkerchief, in this case a large square of silky white cotton with a tonal triple-striped border.
For the actual robbery, Noodles wears a pair of black leather gloves that he has removed by the time they’re back in the car. Once he takes off in pursuits of the sole gangster who survived the tommy-gunning massacre, we see the gold rectangular case of his watch shining from his wrist, fastened to a black leather strap.
Noodles’ look reminded me of how Paul Muni dressed in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) when his character, an unemployed World War I veteran, was riding the rails—and eventually reduced to walking them—in early 1920s America, seeking work and growing increasingly despondent. Admittedly, Muni wore his dusty striped suit over a dark flannel button-up work shirt rather than a pullover, but the approach felt similar.
The Colt Detective Special is shown to be the weapon of choice for the gangsters across the 1930s sequences, with Noodles most notably using his during the aftermath of the diamond robbery.
This near-ubiquity reflects the fact that, though Colt had intended that the Detective Special would primarily find use as a law enforcement “belly gun” upon its introduction in 1927, this short-barreled revolver quickly found favor on both sides of the law for its balance of reliability, concealment, and power, carrying six cartridges of the standard police .38 Special ammunition.
Let’s go for a swim.
Consistent with his pattern of following unwise impulses, Noodles takes command of the gang’s dark red 1931 Plymouth Model PA sedan and, perhaps in a show of defiance to reflect his unwillingness to be bossed around, shifts it into top gear and drives off a pier into the water.
1931 was the year that Plymouth introduced “floating power” with the Model PA’s 3.2-liter four-cylinder engine, referring to its engine boasting “the smoothness of an eight—the economy of a four”… not the car’s actual buoyancy, as tested by Noodles. Of the more than 75,000 Plymouths produced in 1931, the majority were these four-door Model PA sedans with nearly 50,000 sold with an MSRP of $635.
Noodles, Max, Patsy, and Cockeye—and, presumably, their proceeds from the diamond heist—emerge from the water and return to New York, though I can imagine their getaway was considerably less convenient as they were now all wet and without means of transportation.
How to Get the Look
Less able to assimilate into society than the rest of his gangster pals, Noodles dresses as the clear outsider by layering his business suit over a dressed-down polo-style shirt, an ’80s-informed approach that remains consistent with the 1930s setting via details like the double-breasted jacket, suspenders, and fedora.
- Black-and-white herringbone (with burgundy double-stripe) wool suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Navy knitted long-sleeved polo shirt with 3-button placket
- Black suspenders with silver adjusters and black leather “rabbit-ear” ends
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black socks
- Black leather gloves
- Gold rectangular watch with gold dial and black leather strap
As of September 2021, there are several outfitters offering soft navy knitted “polo sweaters” or similar shirts that you can grab to comfortably—but stylishly—dress down a suit:
- Gutteridge Merino Wool Knitted Polo Shirt ($69, Gutteridge)
- Marks & Spencer Pure Cashmere Knitted Polo Shirt ($175, M&S)
- Paul James Knitwear 100% Cotton Long-Sleeve Knitted Polo Shirt ($63, Paul James Knitwear)
- Uniqlo Extra Fine Merino Knitted Long-Sleeve Polo Shirt ($39.90, Uniqlo)
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, which also started streaming on Netflix in the U.S. this month.
I thought you were the guy that said you didn’t like bosses. It sounded like a good idea then… it still is!